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So, You Want to Buy an In-line?
A Short History of Modern In-line Design

By Randy D. Smith


Production in-line muzzle loading rifles can be found on the market at prices ranging anywhere from $75 up to $1,000. That is quite a contrast and it can be confusing to a novice buyer. To further confuse matters, models and styles have changed so rapidly in the last twenty years that a buyer may be uncertain what is most suitable.

In-line muzzleloaders are capable of accuracy equal to production cartridge rifles. Properly equipped in-lines with carefully developed loads are very effective rifles, and I have several in my safe that present no first shot handicap. While these rifles cannot match many modern calibers, they can be effective out to 200 yards. Here is a quick review of what is available and what you can expect from different configurations.

Open Breech/Plunger Style In-lines

When in-lines first came on the market most of them tended to follow the general design and lines of Tony Knight's MK-85. The MK-85 is nothing more than a barrel with a breech plug attached to the end. A #11 percussion nipple was screwed into the breech. Most of the side hammer muzzleloaders of the day used #11 nipples so it was logical to continue with something that was popular and successful.

To impact the nipple and cause detonation of the powder charge a spring-loaded plunger was attached to the end. This was placed in a housing that was attached to a trigger and safety mechanism from standard cartridge rifle design. The rifle looked, handled and functioned very closely to modern rifles. Knight also added a screw in/screw out secondary safety to the end of the plunger for added safety.

Another early design was the CVA Blazer, which was based on the same general principal as the MK-85 except for a conventional hammer mounted on the end of the breech rather than a plunger. The Kahnke muzzleloader still uses a hammer design and is a good rifle. The Thompson/Center Scout was another popular hammer style in-line.

Oddly enough another early configuration was the H & R Huntsman, a break action hammer model following the same general principals as the Blazer, and a marketing failure. This can be attributed in part to its status as a "Form 4473" firearm, and is especially interesting in light of the current popularity of the break action inline.

These were the glory days of inline design. How many of you remember the overly complicated Peifer, the rather homely, gimmicky, but functional Marlin, or the bizarre Prairie River Arms Bull Pup? What about the beautifully styled Santa Fe or the high performance Gonic? All of these rifles were on the market as recently as 1997, but failed to survive the many transitions that have occurred since.

Open breech/plunger style in-lines were and still are very good designs. Until the advent of using the 209 shotshell primer to ignite pellet powder loads, most hunters found the open breech/plunger style in-line to be perfectly adequate. Currently available plunger style in-lines include the Knight American Knight, Knight Wolverine, Thompson/Center Black Diamond, White Model 97 Whitetail and Model 98, Traditions Tracker, and CVA Buckhorn.

Generally these rifles are not expensive to manufacture and as newer, more fashionable designs came along they tended to become the entry level, lower priced models. Most of them have been converted to the much hotter 209 primer, but don't underestimate a #11 percussion system. Its only weakness was that it did not ignite pellet loads as readily and the 209 system was developed to address that shortcoming. If you want to use pellets most of these rifles can be easily converted to the much hotter musket cap nipple without compromising their design advantages.

In defense of the design, a #11 percussion system is highly dependable in properly maintained rifles, extremely weather proof, and provides "non-invasive" ignition trait that causes black powder or Pyrodex powder to ignite in a consistent manner. Most of these rifles are capable of excellent accuracy, in spite of a somewhat longer trigger pull to ignition time. This delay is barely noticeable in current models. In fact some of the most accurate in-lines continue to be #11 percussion system guns shooting powder style propellants.

Some disadvantages to this system are:

  1. Blowback tends to contaminate scopes that are mounted directly above the nipple.
  2. Addition of a scope can make for tight quarters for installing and removing percussion caps and usually is best achieved with a mechanical capper.
  3. Extremely wet conditions can cause contamination of the percussion cap and resulting misfires or hangfires.
  4. Some of the designs are not easily broken down in the field and parts can be lost if the shooter is not careful.

Bolt Action In-lines

The early inlines showed the way. When it became apparent that in-line rifles were not only selling well but also becoming increasingly popular and profitable, some established firearms companies decided to jump on the bandwagon.

Remington and Ruger took existing off-the-shelf bolt action rifle designs and converted them to muzzleloaders. In order to sell the public on the idea both companies began praising the advantages of the bolt action inline, which are minimal.

The bolt action was familiar to shooters who already had and liked bolt action conventional rifles. The striker of the bolt was a bit quicker than many of the early plunger style in-lines, the bolt could be closed over the nipple and provide some additional protection of the nipple in some models. The Remington especially sold very well and most of the major muzzleloader companies began producing bolt action in-lines to stay competitive.

Some companies like Austin & Halleck and Navy Arms used off-the-shelf imported bolt action components to produce their new rifles. Importers like Traditions and CVA modeled bolt actions and constructed similar actions into their designs. White simply converted their popular "W" series to a bolt design. Knight created a totally new bolt action design that was unique because the bolt only opens and closes over the housing and with a minimum of travel. This is something that could be just as easily accomplished with a thumb lever.

When using a #11 percussion system there is very little advantage to a bolt action in-line. A strong case can be made that a bolt action muzzleloader is not as well balanced and heavier than it needs to be. The major advantage is that you can slip the bolt from the rifle to remove the breech plug without totally disassembling the rifle. That can be an advantage if a load has become fouled in some way. That is, if you have thought to bring your breech plug wrench along. Otherwise it doesn't matter.

At the same time that bolt actions were becoming popular, Hodgdon Powder came out with pellet loads which were handy if a bit more difficult to ignite. The use of 209 shotgun primers was pioneered by Thompson/Center and then Knight in conjunction with their new bolt action DISC rifle to dramatically improve pellet ignition. The other companies quickly converted to the 209 primer ignition system, and the bolt actions already in production were the easiest and cheapest means.

The 209 primer has a problem that is easily addressed by a bolt action system. The 209 primer does not fit tightly over a nipple and is insecure in a conventional plunger rifle. The 209 primer needs to be held in place rather than just slipped over a nipple. Most of the bolt rifles can be closed tightly enough that the primer has little freedom of movement.

Knight addressed this problem in their early design by enclosing the primer in a plastic sleeve or "disc." The other companies developed some innovative breech systems so that a separate plastic sleeve did not have to be used. But the Knight DISC system was the most practical and efficient 209 application to a bolt in-line design.

Within a couple of years there was a bolt action model available from nearly every major company except Thompson/Center. They alone used their existing Encore centerfire break action rifle design to address the use of a 209 primer. It was and is such a good design that the break action was accepted by the public as a viable alternative to the bolt action.

Savage entered the bolt action in-line market late with a smokeless powder muzzleloading rifle. While the 10ML-II is an innovative design and performs very well, its smokeless powder capability has not yet made it a market leader. If a shooter is not comfortable with using smokeless powder the Savage is still an excellent choice for Triple 7 or Pyrodex loads. The Savage 10ML-II design is immensely strong, completely eliminates blowback, and conveniently handles 209 primers without the use of plastic sleeves.

There are some advantages to bolt action in-lines. Many are based upon proven and successful designs. Bolt action muzzleloaders tend to be very good rifles. They are quite stable shooting platforms with excellent triggers and generally good ergonomics (they have good stock designs for instance).

There are also some disadvantages to bolt action in-lines:

  1. They have long actions and tend to be awkward with barrels longer than 24 inches.
  2. They are slower and more complicated to clean.
  3. Most are just as guilty as plunger style guns of scope contamination.
  4. Some bolt actions do not do very well with 209 primers.

There are some very good bolt action muzzleloaders on the market. These include the Austin & Halleck 320/420, CVA Hunterbolt, Knight DISC Extreme, Remington ML700, Savage 10ML-II, Traditions Evolution, and the White Thunderbolt.

Break Action and Drop Action In-lines

When Knight came out with its DISC rifle and Thompson/Center introduced the Encore the concept of so-called "Magnum" loads was introduced to the public. With the advent of 50 grain Pyrodex Pellets, designers realized how easy it was to quickly charge an in-line with three pellets or 150-grain charges sparked by 209 primers.

Manufacturers began touting extravagant performance claims based upon increased velocity. To gain the full advantage of Magnum powder charges barrel length increased to 26" and beyond.

The problem with a bolt action or plunger style in-line is that as barrel length increases the rifles become bulky and difficult to manage. Also, none of the bolt action or plunger styles (except the Savage) have managed to completely address the issue of blowback contamination of the scope. Finally, neither the bolt action nor the plunger style in-line design, except for the Knight DISC system and later the Savage 10ML-II, was readily adaptable to the 209 primer.

I'm sure that early on Knight was perfectly content with the status quo, as their DISC rifles were so much better than the others that hunters who wanted the very best would pay for the Knight models. Those that chose the Encore break action had to jump through gun control regulatory hoops because the Encore can also be readily converted to a cartridge rifle. This hurt Thompson/Center's interstate catalog sales because the Black Diamond was simply not competing adequately with the DISC system or several of the bolt designs.

Thompson/Center went in an entirely different direction with the introduction of the Omega, a drop action in-line. The Omega was a ground breaker. Because it did not use a plunger or bolt action configuration it was shorter in overall length with a longer barrel, which improved velocity claims while also improving balance and handling. The drop action also addressed many of the concerns associated with the 209 primer. The scope contamination problem was solved. It is much easier to clean because it does not possess all the nooks and crannies of a bolt or plunger design.

The Omega was so good that overnight many companies could not give their muzzleloaders away since dealers were simply not moving them. It seemed that nearly everyone in the buying market wanted an Omega. Competitive sales nose-dived and other companies scrambled for a similar design. Thompson/Center literally caught everyone else flat footed.

CVA came out with the Optima, a break action design, until it could muster its design team to produce the drop action Kodiak and the Winchester Apex. The Optima was clearly intended to appeal to those who wanted an Encore at a lower price. It even mimicked the Encore's unique stock design, even though it was totally unnecessary.

Within a year companies like H&R, New England Arms, and Rossi/Braztech came out with break actions at much lower prices. H&R's rifle looks almost exactly like the rifle it tried to market nearly twenty years earlier. Traditions recently introduced the Pursuit and Pursuit Pro break actions, which are solid performers at reasonable mid-level pricing.

Break action muzzleloaders have some advantages that the Omega does not possess. The break actions have substantial steel frames, while the drop actions depend heavily upon aluminum and polymers for many of their critical parts. The break actions, and especially (to my eye) the Pursuit Pro, have much cleaner lines and more graceful handling features.

Generally speaking, break action in-lines can do everything that drop action in-lines do at a lower production cost, because several sound cartridge break actions are already in existence. A good break action can be sold for less than two hundred dollars while several of the drop actions are priced at over three hundred.

The Final Measure

I have a problem with many drop action in-lines currently on the market. When compared to the graceful designs and overall appearance of the Ruger #1, Winchester 1885, or even some of the break action single shots, the new drop action muzzleloaders have all the classic lines and artistic appeal of a cinder block. Only the Knight Revolution, the newest of the drop actions, manages to create some semblance of an appealing 19th Century design, which is further enhanced by solid metal components. Beauty, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder and there are many that will disagree. But, in spite of some strong opposition to my views, I must cling to the idea that most of the drop actions are just plain homely.

Some of the old plunger style in-lines are far more attractive. Examples such as the original Super 91 White, the top end MK-85 laminated stock and T/C System One walnut stock rifles were much more graceful and visually stunning. These three rifles are destined to become true collector's items and even now command high resale values.

If a working man with limited funds wants a muzzleloader for once-a-year deer hunting it is difficult to justify paying over $400 when a perfectly acceptable plunger style muzzleloading rifle can be had for less than $160. Because of marketing fads there are a lot of nice plunger style rifles on the used market at some very attractive prices. Some of these rifles haven't been used for more than one or two seasons.

Once the advertised velocity claims are brushed aside in favor of realistic performance expectations a different picture appears. A hunter with a plunger or bolt action style .50 caliber in-line with a 22" to 24" barrel using a #11 percussion system and a moderate load of powder propellant will find that he can go to the field with an accurate, dependable and powerful rifle capable of doing anything a .44 Magnum or .45-70 centerfire rifle can do.

I have seen some groups shot from rifles like the Traditions Buckhunter Pro, T/C Thunderhawk, White Model 97, Knight Wolverine, Remington Model 700ML and CVA Hunterbolt that will match any production rifle on earth at 100 yards. I am usually hesitant to convert a #11 rifle to a 209 system because the #11 percussion cap is very good in rifles that were designed for it, often far better than the 209 conversion will be. A musket cap conversion is usually much more practical and just as effective as the 209 system in these rifles.

Almost no one is offering a new #11 percussion system in-line today because of the popularity of the 209 ignition system. If it is nothing else the 209 ignition system is hot and almost eliminates hang-fires and misfires. When I go on expensive out-of-state big game hunting trips I always take a 209 or musket cap system rifle.

When you are trudging through a heavy wet snow on a Colorado elk hunt or chopping through humid jungle on a Florida buffalo hunt there is something comforting about having a 209 primer in the ignition system of your muzzleloader. However, I am under no illusions concerning accuracy. A good, older in-line or even side hammer will shoot just as straight and hit every bit as hard.

If you prefer a bolt action inline then by all means give them a good look. There is no better inline on the market than the Knight DISC, and bolt actions like the CVA Firebolt 209 Magnum, Remington 700 ML, Savage 10ML-II, Traditions Evolution, and White Thunderbolt can provide a lifetime of superior shooting. Generally they handle just like the bolt rifle in your closet, and that can be an advantage for many hunters.

The break actions and drop actions allow for full utilization of the 209 primer with few of the disadvantages. A man on a tight budget should give the break actions a strong consideration if he wants a 209 gun. A moderately priced CVA Optima or Traditions Pursuit is difficult to beat for the investment. I wouldn't give up my Pursuit Pro to pay the difference required to move up to many of the drop action rifles.

CVA's Kodiak and Thompson/Center's Omega have proven to be very popular and have strong customer support. The Thompson/Center Encore and Knight Revolution are top of the line rifles capable of hunting anything in any part of the world.

It all depends upon how much you want to spend and how much performance you feel you need from your muzzleloader. Just understand that the difference is often composed more of advertising hype than reality. You may not need to spend those extra dollars for rifles that will do only a little better.




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Copyright 2004 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.



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